Christian Responses to Charles Darwin, 1870-1900
An exhibit at the Yale Divinity School Library - February-June 2009

This exhibit commemorating the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth focuses on Christian responses to Darwin shortly after the publication of The Origin of Species.

Darwinism involved a 'crisis': a crisis of belief in creation, providence, and design, of belief in the reality of the divine purposes in nature and the omnipotence and beneficence of the divine character that they reveal. For many individuals this crisis found its resolution in a quite mundane way, through the writing of a book. James R. Moore, in his book, The Post-Darwinian Controversies: a Study of the Protestant Struggle to Come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America, 1870-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), characterizes three Christian responses to Darwin: Christian Anti-Darwinism, "Christian Darwinisticism," and Christian Darwinisms. The published works of representatives of these three groups are featured in the exhibit that follows.

About Charles Darwin:

Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809 in Shrewsbury, England, the fifth of six children of wealthy society doctor and financier Robert Darwin, and Susannah Wedgwood Darwin. Darwin first attended Edinburgh University, where he neglected his medical studies to investigate marine invertebrates, and then the University of Cambridge. At Cambridge, he was introduced to the popular craze for beetle collecting which he pursued zealously, getting some of his finds published in Stevens' Illustrations of British entomology. He became a close friend and follower of botany professor John Stevens Henslow and met other leading naturalists who saw scientific work as religious natural theology.

From 1831 to 1836 Darwin served as naturalist aboard the H.M.S. Beagle on a British science expedition around the world. In South America Darwin found fossils of extinct animals that were similar to modern species. On the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean he noticed many variations among plants and animals of the same general type as those in South America. Upon his return to London Darwin conducted thorough research of his notes and specimens. Out of this study grew several related theories: that evolution did occur; that evolutionary change was gradual, requiring thousands to millions of years; that the primary mechanism for evolution was a process called natural selection; and that the millions of species alive today arose from a single original life form through a branching process called "speciation."

Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species was first published in November 1859 and five additional editions were issuse by 1872.


Darwin died on 19 April 1882 and is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Christian Anti-Darwinism

"Christian Anti-Darwinism" emerged from a conflict between Darwinian doctrines and certain fundamental philosophical, rather than specifically Christian, beliefs: namely, the perennial belief that full and final certainty can be obtained through inductive inference and must be obtained for a scientific theory to be thoroughly credible; and the belief, lately indebted to the Neo-Platonism of German Romantic philosophy, that every form of life is essentially fixed by the divine will. If a "Darwinian revolution" occurred at all it was these beliefs about certainty and fixity that were primarily overthrown.

Enoch Fitch Burr (1818-1907), a clergyman-scientist, was one of the most influential of all writers against evolution in the United States. Burr did not conduct a vendetta against Darwinism, but against the larger philosophy which he thought it implied. Evolution, he said, teaches that all things we perceive, including what are called spiritual phenomena, have come from the simplest beings, solely by means of forces and laws as belong to matter. In contrast with this "law hypothesis" he put forth the "Theistic hypothesis," which he considered the simplest and surest answer. On the supposition of creation by a superior being, all natural wonders are immediately and elegantly explained.

Featured work:

Pater mundi, or, doctrine of evolution: being in substance lectures delivered in various colleges and theological seminaries / by E.F. Burr. New York: American Tract Society, 1873.



For John William Dawson (1820-1899), it was not primarily the Bible against which Darwin had offended, but against the methods and truths of established science. Darwin had reasoned "as to possibilities, not by facts." His theory was "not a result of scientific induction but a mere hypothesis, to account for facts not otherwise explicable except by the doctrine of creation." Darwinism and other such "crude and simple hypotheses," Dawson believed, could never achieve the certainty which attached to the doctrine, both scientific and scriptural, of the immutability of species.

Featured work:

Modern ideas of evolution / by Sir J. William Dawson. Originally published 1890.

Luther Tracy Townsend (1838-1922) was professor at Boston Theological Seminary (now Boston University School of Theology). He argued that scientific theories should be held as mere "working hypotheses." To "possess weight" a working hypothesis must receive the assent of all, or nearly all, who are capable of investigating the subject. By the time of the publication of Evolution or creation, the consensus of scientists was hardening against Darwinism in any form. Seizing the opportunity, Townsend applied the rule. Darwin's hypothesis should have no weight except that accorded to other very questionable speculations.

Featured work:

Evolution or creation: a critical review of the scientific and scriptural theories of creation and certain related subjects / by Luther Tracy Townsend. Baltimore: Published by the author, 1898.

Christian Darwinisticism

"Christian Darwinisticism" is the term James R. Moore applies to reconciliations of Darwinism and Christian doctrine that embodied non-Darwinian evolutionary theories. They came into conflict with Darwinism because they believed that God's purposes are manifested in the world and that these purposes disclose God's omnipotent and beneficent character: more precisely, they believed in a god whose purposes could not have been realized through evolution as Darwin conceived it.

St. George Jackson Mivart (1827-1900) was an early follower of Darwin, but became Darwin's most influential critic in Britain. By 1868 he had begun to question the efficacy of natural selection, particularly as a cause of human evolution. Natural selection might explain the development of the human body, he conceded, but it can hardly account for mankind's unique psychological nature. The human soul with its intellectual and moral attributes is a supernatural infusion, he maintained, and natural selection is not, in fact, "the origin of species." Mivart alienated himself from his former colleagues (Darwin, et al.), and ended up being excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.

Featured work:

On the genesis of species / St. George Mivart. London: Macmillan, 1871.

By combining Romanticism, religion, and science-the epistemology of Kant, the Gospel of Jesus, the teleology of Spencer- Henry Ward Beecher (1818-1887) remained a Congregational clergyman and preached mightily to the throbbing human heart. In Evolution and religion he offered a crude, though eloquent, explanation of natural selection, then exulted in the creation's "moving onward and upward in determinate lines and directions" through "the mediation of natural laws."

Featured work:

Evolution and religion / by Henry Ward Beecher. New York: Fords, Howard, & Hulbert, 1885.

Joseph Le Conte (1823-1901), professor of geology and natural history in the University of California, defined evolution as "(1) continuous progressive change, (2) according to certain laws, (3) and by means of resident forces." The "resident forces" he interpreted in accordance with a theology learnt from Kant, Fichte, Hegel, and Berkeley. Science, he declared, is a rational system of natural theology. There is no real efficient force but spirit, and no real independent existence but God.

Featured work:

Evolution: its nature, its evidences, and its relation to religious thought / Joseph Le Conte. 2nd ed., rev. New York : Appleton, 1899.

Lyman Abbott (1835-1922) was Beecher's successor at Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York, and America's outstanding representative of evangelical liberalism at the turn of the century. Abbott maintained that evolution referred to the history of a process, not the explanation of a cause. The theistic evolutionist holds that God is the one Resident Force; that His method of work in His world is the method of growth.

Featured work:

Theology of an evolutionist / Lyman Abbott. New York: Outlook, 1925. Originally published 1897.

Minot Judson Savage (1841-1918) was perhaps the first clergyman in America to accept evolution from the pulpit and attempt to reconcile religious and theological thinking in its light. Savage held evolution responsible for teaching that the worlds came into being by processes of continuous variation, change, growth, that infinite eternal spirit and life is in and through the universe and that matter is only a manifestation of the eternal life and spirit, a reliable and adequate revelation of "the Unknowable One."

Featured work:

The irrepressible conflict between two world-theories / by Minot J. Savage. Boston: Arena Publishing, 1892.

James McCosh (1811-1894) was the first American Protestant theologian and religious leader to express publicly his sympathy for Darwinism. Originally from Scotland, he became president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton) in 1851. McCosh did not occupy his new post for a week before expressing to the upper classes of the College that he was fully in favor of evolution, provided that it was properly limited and explained Save for his views on human descent, McCosh might be called a Darwinian. He attributed much to natural selection when others found it impossible. He could do so because it never occurred to him that natural selection should diminish the force of the argument from design.

Featured work:

Christianity and positivism: a series of lectures to the times on natural theology and apologetics / by James McCosh. New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1871.

Christian Darwinism

If ever there was a contradiction in terms it must surely have been Christian Darwinism. The name Christian might have been annexed to anti-Darwinism or perhaps to some version of evolution which did honor to the purposes and character of the Creator, but never, surely to that theory set forth by the agnostic naturalist Charles Darwin. Yet Christian Darwinism did exist-the appellation was used as early as 1867-and its representatives on both sides of the Atlantic were among the ablest and most orthodox of the post-Darwinian controversialists.

James Iverach (1839-1922) was a professor of dogmatic theology and of New Testament at the Free Church College in Aberdeen. The form in which Iverach thought Darwin's theory might safely be held was not one of agnostic evolution. The work of science is strengthened by the religious conviction that nothing occurs by chance. Darwin's theory of biological evolution by natural selection could be seen from two points of view, one strictly scientific and the other teleological. For the first, natural selection offers only a fragmentary conception of nature. From the second, the religious viewpoint, natural selection is seen as it truly is: as an expression of the sum total of causes, internal and external, which have transpired to the end that just those forms of life which are currently observed should exist. Interpreted thus, natural selection does not damage the argument from design but actually strengthens it.

Featured work:

Theism in the light of present science and philosophy / by James Iverach. New York: Published for New York University by the Macmillan Co., 1899.

In the last two decades of the nineteenth century Aubrey Lackington Moore (1843-1890) was the clergyman who more than any other man was responsible for breaking down the antagonisms toward evolution then widely felt in the English Church. Unlike many theologians of his generation, Moore learnt to understand the scientific enterprise as scientists themselves understood it. His was a theology which refused to connect the Christian faith necessarily with evolution or the denial of evolution, but which held that evolution should be specially attractive to those whose first thought is to hold and to guard every jot and tittle of the Catholic faith. Faith is not dependent on any particular understanding of organic origins, for whatever science may reveal as the method of origination, it is, after all, only a revelation of God's method of creation. Evolution or creation is thus a false antithesis. A Christian's controversy with a Darwinian agnostic is a controversy with his agnosticism, not his Darwinism.

Featured work:

Science and the faith: essays on apologetic subjects / by Aubrey L. Moore. 3rd ed. London: K Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1892.

In the United States Christian Darwinism was advanced by two theologically minded naturalists, the botanist Asa Gray (1810-1888) and the geologist George Frederick Wright. Their enterprise was sustained by a common commitment to the evangelical Calvinism which had dominated New England theology for more than two hundred years. Gray was a professor of natural history at Harvard and was the foremost defender of Darwinism in America. Despite the abiding importance of his own scientific work, Gray is remembered chiefly as the one American naturalist who identified himself from the outset with the promotion of Darwin's.

Featured work:

Natural science and religion: two lectures delivered to the Theological School of Yale College / by Asa Gray. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1880.

George Frederick Wright (1838-1921), along with Asa Gray, was the creator of Christian Darwinism in America. An ordained pastor in the Congregational Church, he became interested in geology, gaining the respect of the scientific community. His Studies in science and religion was probably the most important work of its kind written by an American clergyman in the last third of the nineteenth century. Wright contended that in science and religion there is but a single method by which to discover truth. Neither the defender of the Bible nor the physical scientist can be absolutely certain as to the validity of his convictions. Doctors of science as well as doctors of theology walk by faith and not by sight. He consistently upheld the inspiration of Scripture and the historicity of its saving events, insisting that the "theory" of orthodoxy is the one which best fits the facts of science, history, and human experience.

Featured work:

Studies in science and religion / by G. Frederick Wright. Andover: Warren F. Draper, 1882.

Exhibit text by Paul F. Stuehrenberg, Librarian, Yale Divinity School Library

© 2009 Yale University Library
Last modified: 6 April 2009
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